The “Hot Beat” is Back: Gene Davis Headlines the Smithsonian

Artwork: Gene Davis, Hot Beat, 1964, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Woodward Foundation (detail).

“I became convinced that the way to make really good art was to do the outrageous, the unexpected—to be a renegade. That was my philosophy—to explore the seemingly impossible in art, to do things that were new for their own sake, whether they were good or bad,” American artist Gene Davis (1920-1985) reveals in the sumptuous monograph Gene Davis (Arts Publisher, 1982).

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Indeed, throughout his life Davis left convention by the wayside. Born and raised in Washington, D.C., he began his career as a sportswriter before covering the presidencies of Roosevelt and Truman. He was welcomed into the intimate circle, playing poker with President Truman on long trips across the United State. But proximity to power was not his dream. In his heart, he yearned to make art and although he couldn’t draw, in 1949 he began to paint.

Gene Davis, Raspberry Icicle, 1967, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase

Gene Davis, Raspberry Icicle, 1967, acrylic, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase

Mid-century America was a place of tremendous innovation underscored by a willingness to break the rules. The conventions of Europe had been grounded after the fall of the continent following World War II. In its place, the United States began to come of age, finding its own sensibilities that were distinctly American.

Davis loved color and its powerful possibilities. He reduced it to its most simple form: the stripe, and he created visual rhythms and frequencies that evoked the triumph of jazz music. Just as jazz had discovered new possibilities of experience and emotion within the form itself, so too had Davis discovered the way in which stripping a painting to the clean, bold repetition of color could great a song all its own and helped to launch a new genre: Color Field Painting.

Gene Davis, Two Part Blue, about 1964, magna, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis

Gene Davis, Two Part Blue, about 1964, magna, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis

In celebration the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., presents Gene Davis: Hot Beat, now through April 2, 2017. Featuring 15 large-scale classic stripe paintings from the 1960s, Hot Beat vibrates with sensuous intensity, doing marvelous things to the mind, body, and soul. Like music it uplifts and elevates as we breathe the air charged with a current that snaps, crackles, and pops with pure electricity.

Some of the works, including “Dr. Peppercorn,” “Raspberry Icicle,” and “Red Witch,” run nearly 20-feet long, becoming panoramic explosions of energy. Here the sensibility of a song comes into full bloom, as each painting guides us through a series of feelings that are at once visceral and impossible to articulate. We simply sop them up and let them soak in, as they wash over us with the spirit of John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk.

Gene Davis, Limelight/Sounds of Grass, 1960, magna, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis

Gene Davis, Limelight/Sounds of Grass, 1960, magna, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Florence Coulson Davis

The notes become color as sound is translated into sight, and we feel the live vibe that is much like attending a concert. There is a sense of freshness and improvisation that underscores a mastery of the medium and a sense of impact that makes Davis one of the most influential artists in the genre of Color Field. He was obsessed with the ways that colors and stripes could have infinity interplay. “If I worked for 50 more years, I wouldn’t exhaust the possibilities,” The Washington Post quoted Davis as saying in his obituary.


Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.